Exploring how self-control training improves self-control performance: An experience sampling study

Principal Investigator
Grant Awarding Body
Research Grants Council
Grant Type
Faculty Development Scheme
Project Code
Amount awarded
Funding Year
Duration of the Project
18 months
Self-control is often required when there are conflicts between temptations and long-term goals. Imagine when someone trying to lose weight sees his friends ordering delicious but high-calorie cheeseburgers. Two behavioral tendencies are competing for enactment: a) stick to the diet plan and order a low-calorie meal; or b) satisfy the immediate desire and order the cheeseburger. Such conflict could also happen when a researcher rushing to meet a grant proposal deadline receives an invitation to a party; or when someone wants to withhold his anger in the face of provocation. Successful self-control usually requires people to resist temptations and to enact behavior that is consistent with long-term goals. However, people often yield to temptation. The failure to exert self-control is at the root of many individual and societal misfortunes ranging from academic underachievement to unsatisfactory relationships. Exploring effective ways to boost self-control is a valuable endeavour.

Although recent research suggests that self-control grows by repeatedly practising small acts of self-control, little is known about how this 'self-control training' works. This project seeks to understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the self-control training. In particular, we will test whether the repeated practice of small acts of self-control increases self-efficacy to resist temptation and reduces perceived fatigue after self-control exertion. We also explore the longevity of the training effect and whether it works better for certain types of self-control conflicts. Overall, this project strives to provide important information that can help researchers and practitioners to optimize the effect of self-control training in future.

The current project also extends previous works by examining a cost-effective way to boost the training effect: Goal-setting. Goal-setting is an integral part of many programs that aim to promote behavioural changes. However, it is often omitted in self-control training. Past studies usually required participants to repeatedly practice small acts of self-control without mentioning the expected performance levels of these practices. Specific, challenging goals provide clear external reference for people to evaluate their progress. When the goal is realistic and challenging, people are more likely to obtain mastery experience and develop self-efficacy in the process of training. The current project will compare the effect of self-control training with and without a goal-setting component to evaluate its additional value.

To gain a deeper understanding of the training effect on everyday, naturalistic behaviours, this project will include not only laboratory assessments and traditional questionnaire measures but also real life experience sampling. Participants will be required to report their experience of self-control conflicts and related cognitions every day when they receive a smartphone signal. There will be three waves of one-week experience sampling (before the training, one week after and one month after the training). The exact delivery time of the signal will be randomly selected within a preset time window. By comparing the pre-training and post-training experiences, and comparing experiences of people in treatment condition and control condition, we can obtain insight into the effects of self-control training on people's experience of everyday conflicts of self-control.

Taken together, the present project will extend the previous research theoretically, practically and methodologically. By combining a randomised controlled experiment with the experience sampling method, we seek to enhance the understanding of the process involved in the long-term improvement of self-control. This project will also have clinical and educational implications for improving problematic behaviour related to failures of self-control.